(USA/Ukraine, 100 min.)
Written and directed by Steve Hoover
Audiences saw a war in Ukraine within the powerful Occupy doc Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, but while the Oscar nominee captured action from the centre of a violent protest, Almost Holy zooms in on another war in Ukraine that demands attention. That fight is the war to protect the children of Ukraine. Stripped of the headline-friendly immediacy of the Ukrainian revolution, it’s a battle for which few bureaucrats are willing to take up arms. Writer/director Steve Hoover (Blood Brother) turns his lens to the lone renegade soldier willing to wade in the trenches for Ukraine’s future. That man is Gennadiy “Pastor Crocodile” Mokhnenko, a priest who runs an orphanage for street children. He’s a man of the cloth who spends more time breaking bad than breaking bread.
Hoover once again delivers a tremendously powerful film about a lone saviour in an explosive scenario. Almost Holy takes a more critical and objective approach to its subject than Blood Brother does with its saintly portrait of Rocky Braat, but while the difference might simply reside in the vast dissimilarities between the subjects, the tactic makes for a much tighter and fuller film. Almost Holy realises the complexity of both its subject matter and its central character with ample dramatic heft as pulse-pounding music by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Bobby Krlic amplifies the intensity, while the dark, brooding cinematography employed by John Pope captures Pastor Crocodile in his many shades. (Terrence Malick’s support as an Executive Producer indicates the scope and visual power of the film.)
Mokhnenko is a flawed and fallible man of faith willing to fight for a cause he believes is right. Almost Holy chronicles his efforts to build a strong community for Ukrainian children abandoned by their parents and government. These aren’t just any street kids, though; they’re hardened drug addicts who grew up with needles in their arms. Mokhnenko takes an approach akin to street justice as he creates a renegade mission in which he shelters the kids and then goes after the parents, drug dealers, and abusers who have fueled their addictions. Similarly, one storyline of the film depicts Mokhnenko efforts to rescue a deaf woman from an abusive guardian. When the pastor confronts the woman’s allegations that her guardian raped her, his intimidating fury lets the woman escape her captivity and exploitation, but the episode also reveals Mokhnenko’s powerlessness to enforce the law. Unless the Crocodile commits a mortal sin, the woman’s abuser remains on the streets.
Much as he does in Blood Brother, Hoover offers some wrenching footage of children living in dire poverty, suffering from terrible living conditions and poor health. The images of the effects of substance abuse on the kids are especially troubling to watch as Mokhnenko shows Hoover how the kids endure awful conditions from an early age. Shots of the children reveal legs pocked with scars from scratching, skin blistered from blood infections, and bodies emaciated by starvation, addiction, and neglect. Almost Holy is often a difficult film to experience, not simply for the brutality of the images, but also for the indifference one sees within the system. As one watches the film, one wonders how anyone in a position of power could allow these children to suffer. The reality is that the Ukrainian state does nothing for these kids, and leaves it up to Mokhnenko to fulfill his mandate to serve the needy.
People don’t call him “Pastor Crocodile” without reason. Almost Holy is both a portrait of self-sacrifice and an intense character study of a complicated saviour. The film unflinchingly confronts the mass of contradictions that its subject embodies as Hoover engages with this man who unwaveringly uses the power of the church for his own branch of street justice. The doc reveals how Mokhnenko fights for the kids with brute force and uses fear, intimidation, and near-militant tactics to clean up the streets. Almost Holy explores Mokhnenko from the point of view of his detractors by acknowledging the man’s brooding rage and simmering volatility as paradoxical ingredients in a cocktail of oil and holy water. He might save the kids, but Mokhnenko’s critics seem fair when they say that he’s a power-hungry wild animal. He bares his teeth a little too keenly and a little too sharply for a fully righteous man.
The Crocodile recognises his sins, though, and Hoover offers numerous shots of the pastor washing his face, even at the homes of kids he aims to rescue. No amount of ritual cleansing or expiation may cleanse Mokhnenko of his sins as he scrubs and scrubs the permanent grime from his skin. By the film’s end, Hoover shows the Crocodile swimming in the ocean and offers an image of a man desperate to wash himself clean. It’s a powerful metaphor and adds even more visual impact to an already impressive documentary.
Hoover makes the complexity of this character the central drive of the film. Almost Holy weaves excerpts of the classic Russian animated film Cheburashka, in which a helpful crocodile named Gena aids the title character in a fight against a cranky old lady, throughout the scenes depicting Pastor Crocodile’s efforts to save the kids. The animation short offers a palpable allegory for the State’s neglect of the needy as the elderly woman unleashes terror on the small Cheburashka, which inspires Crocodile Gena to act. The juxtaposition between the playful animation and the unsettling reality of the live action scenes invites the audience to engage with two seemingly contradictory personalities, but just as animation isn’t conventionally part of documentary form, Pastor Crocodile’s methods are exceptional alternatives. The film asks the audience to what extremes one person may go in pursuit of the greater good. Despite his innumerable faults, the Crocodile certainly earns his ticket to heaven.
Almost Holy screens as the Closing Night selection of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Thursday, April 7 at 7:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox with an introduction and Q&A by filmmaker Steve Hoover with guest speaker Zama Coursen-Neff, Executive Director, Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch